by Bill Murphy

What does this year bring for UVM Mens Basketball?

The short answer is: more of the same.

America East has had three champions in the past six years. The University of Vermont and Albany have earned five of those titles. Those two schools have combined for eleven championships overall and Vermont has more conference titles and NCAA appearances than any other school currently in the conference. The name America East has become an accepted brand and the Catamounts and Great Danes are the face of the league. Extending things a bit further, the two institutions have captured eleven of the last fifteen titles. WOW!!!!

More of the same means, Vermont will be in the thick of things once again. They were given eight of the nine votes for first place in the league’s pre-season poll. Albany had the other. Of course, that was before Anthony Lamb went down with a likely out for the season injury. The Vermont, roster is deep, BUT, every year, everything comes down to how well a team plays in March because America East is a one bid NCAA conference.

IF I was a betting man and I was forced to make a wager today, my choice would be the Cats again for the title.They have so many weapons. The way Trae Bell-Haynes has turned on the motor in the last couple of weeks makes one wonder how many gears he actually has. I believe the truth IS, it took him basically two months to recover from his pre-season ankle injury and now that he is healthy, he is his good old self. I asked him about his at times inconsistent play before the New Year and he responded by saying, “I just wasn’t playing well.There are no excuses.” I think he is a good honest kid, BUT, I don’t think he gave me a real straight answer. He had an incredibly negative stat line in his most recent game at New Hampshire of 0 assists and 7 turnovers, BUT STILL, UNH Coach Bill Herrion said, “the way that kid took over the game and attacked the basket was the difference.” You know what Trae, I fully believe him.

Even without Lamb, who was the Cats clear leading scorer and rebounder, Vermont has a number of offensive weapons which leaves opponents spending loads of time trying to find a way to stop them. Ernie Duncan (15.2), Bell-Haynes (15.0), Payton Henson (13.6) and Drew Urquhart (11.4) could burst out anytime with a 20 point night and each one of them has already done just that this winter. The scoring averages listed are since conference play has begun without Lamb a part of the roster. In addition,  freshman Stef Smith broke out for 20 in the Marquette game and Cam Ward has twice  scored 24 in his career and although he began this season in a inconsistent manner offensively, additional playing time has made his game pick up and of late, he has provided spark when it is needed. Thus, six present Cats have to be kept track of, by whatever America East defense is meeting Vermont on a given night.

Until someone proves again and again that I am wrong, I still consider Albany the biggest threat to UVM. It is extremely difficult to figure out their 3-3 conference record, which included losses to Hartford at home 72-64, at New Hampshire 64-61 and most shockingly at Binghamton 79-66. The University of Maryland Baltimore County picked third in the pre-season could end up second, due to Albany’s slow start, BUT, chances are, UVM will get the top seed and there will be a dogfight for second and the big prize of two home play-off contests. Whomever loses that battle and another few teams will then settle into another battle for third and fourth place and the opportunity to host at least one play-off game. From this observers perspective, only Maine and UMass Lowell don’t have a possibility to fight for homecourt. They will engage in a little struggle of their own, to see which team will not be going to the post season at all.

Vermont fans are definitely spoiled by the current run of success by the Catamounts. UVM has now won twenty-six conference games in a row. Although I clearly believe the Cats are once again the best team in the loop, there is no guarantee they will go unbeaten in conference play again. Any long time fan knows that on any given night, a good team can fall short, I thought there might be a tough time Thursday night in Durham and there was for awhile, as the Cats of a different variety led 27-25 at halftime, BUT, the Catamounts reared their tough side after intermission to dash any thoughts of an upset. John Becker’s team travels to Hartford Sunday to face a team which not only knocked off Albany, BUT, battled Rutgers of the Big Ten on the road to the final minute before bowing 60-58 and surprised Miami of Ohio on the road 68-58. Then on Wednesday night, Albany brings their slow start to Patrick Gym. In asking around about Albany’s slow start, the only possible theory for their ills I have encountered IS, they don’t play hard enough at the defensive end. Only time will tell.

AMERICA EAST TIDBITS- The UVM conference consecutive wins game streak has reached a level never ascended previously in league history and is the longest active streak in any conference in the country.

Taking things a step further, in twenty-three of the twenty-six games in the streak, UVM has tasted victory by ten or more points and the average margin of victory is over 14 points.

UMBC’s only league loss was suffered in Burlington 71-56, BUT, regardless the Retrievers 4-1 America East start equals the best in program history. Their previous best start was in 2008 when UMBC won the league tournament and competed in their only NCAA Tourney. UMBC is opening a new basketball facility and that opening has been delayed from its’ original date. It looks like UVM will play the first contest in the building February 3rd. The RAC was a small cozy arena that had a respectable atmosphere and I will miss its’ spirit.

Two league post season numbers to pass on to readers before we close: 1) Homecourt advantage has proven to be very important since 2014-15 when AE chose to drop their one site tourney in favor of single games played at home sites. Home teams are 18-3 in tourney games since the new format began. 2) The home team has won all three conference championship game in that time as well.